Political Machines

Political Machines: What was the legacy of urban political leaders from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s?

As cities and their problems grew rapidly the political environment changed. No longer did politicians run small manageable cities. These were big cities with big city problems and the government structures designed to cope with these problems grew. As the government grew it became the livelihood for many professional politicians. Some would argue that these politicians were corrupt, they would argue that they provided a needed service.

The following selection illustrates the way the politicians of the city recruited followers:

What tells in holdin your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them. I’ve got a regular system for this. If there’s a fire in Ninth or Tenth or Eleventh Avenue, for example, any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fore engines. If a family is burned out I don’t I don’t ask them if they are Republicans
or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide if they are worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were all burned up, and fix them up until they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics too – mighty good politics. Who can tell me how many votes one of those fires brings me? The poor are the most grateful people in the world, and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich have in theirs…

Another thing, I can always get a deserving man a job. I make it a point to keep track of jobs, and it seldom happens that I don’t have a few up my sleeve ready for use.

I hear a young feller that’s proud of his voice… I ask him to join our Glee Club. He comes up and sings, and he’s a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You’ll find him working for my ticket at the polls
next election. I rope them all in by givin’ them opportunities to show off themselves off. I don’t trouble them with political arguments.

–George Washington Plunkitt, Politician, New York, 1889

Machine Organization

The political machine consisted of three elements: part bosses or a county committee, which governed the party, machine and controlled the politicians; election district captains who mobilized and organized support at the neighborhood level; and party loyalists who supported the machine with votes and financial support in return for jobs, favors and help provided by bosses and election district captains.

The County Committee

The county committee consisted of professional politicians and the party’s top office holders within the county. In some cases, a single leader, called the “party boss,” would dominate the committee. Chicago’s Richard J. Daley exercised a controlling influence in Chicago in the 1960’s. Often, however, no single individual dominated the machine. The Tammany Hall machine that controlled New York City’s politics from late in the 18th century until midway into the 20th century was seldom dominated by a single “boss.” Boss Tweed, the last of the Tammany Hall politicians was an exception.

The power of the county committee was based upon its ability to dominate both elections and the city government. The county committee had absolute control over party nominations and almost total control over the money and votes needed to win election. As a result, the machine’s leaders possessed enormous influence with elected government officials, including mayors, judges, county commissioners, and prosecutors.

Through their control of local government offices and influence over elected officials, members of the county committee controlled government “patronage” jobs that could be used to reward loyal party workers. At the same time, county committee members were in a position to demand financial contributions from businesses within the county in exchange for preferential treatment from the government. Firms that contributed to the machine might receive government contracts, favorable tax treatment, and prompt municipal services. Those that refused would often be harassed by county health and safety inspectors, find their tax assessments increased, and have difficulty obtaining municipal services, such as trash collection and
snow clearance.

Political machines often accepted payments from criminal enterprises in exchange for protection from police interference with their activities. In New York City, for example, protection money paid by gambling and prostitution rackets offered the infamous political machine led by William Marcy Tweed a steady source of income during the mid-19th century. On election day, a massed army of small-time thugs and hoodlums returned the favors of the Tweed Ring by stuffing ballot boxes with votes for Tweed and intimidating voters.

Wards and Precincts

The county committee’s control of government jobs and its ability to secure contributions from business firms enabled it to establish and maintain the machine’s second organizational tier, the precinct or ward organization. A precinct is the smallest electoral district within a county. Cities are usually divided into wards, each containing a number of precincts, for the purpose of electing members of the municipal council. The machine’s ward organization consisted of a ward committeeman who, in turn, directed the activities of
precinct captains. Usually the committeeman and the captains received
government jobs in exchange for their party efforts. Often these individuals did little actual government work. Their real job was to serve the needs of friends, families, and neighbors; secure the loyalty and votes of these constituents; and thereby strengthen the party. Many ward leaders also benefited financially from the preferential treatment they could offer local businesses and contractors. Among the most famous ward bosses was George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall ward boss of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Plunkitt’s personal credo was “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

The precinct captains were the machine’s workhorses. Each precinct captain was responsible for establishing relationships with the several hundred families in the precinct. Captains offered a variety of services to their constituents. They could help family members find jobs with the municipal government or with businesses obligated to the government. Captains could assist with minor legal problems. Captains often operated informal social service agencies, providing money, food, clothing, and shelter to destitute constituents.

Party Loyalist

Benefits at the ward and precinct level provided the machine’s link to the foundations of its organization, the party loyalists in the electorate. Individuals with city jobs obtained through the machine were usually expected to contribute approximately 10 percent of their salaries to the party. More important, they and members of their families were expected to participate in party work during election campaigns. In a national election, hundreds of thousands of these loyalists knocked on doors, handed out leaflets, persuaded their friends and neighbors to support the party, and helped bring voters to the polls. Party machines were particularly effective in
mobilizing immigrant voters who often spoke little or no English and had only a rudimentary understanding of American politics. The machine provided immigrants with social services and jobs in return for their votes.

Decline of the Machine

Political machines began to decline in importance after 1900. Led by Thomas Nast’s cartoons the Tammany Hall machine came down and others soon followed.

The Tammany Tiger: What are you
going to do about it
Artist - Thomas Nast

The federal government began to go after corruption in the cities. Progressive Era reformers at the turn of the century successfully compelled local governments to introduce civil service systems to replace party patronage in government employment. By the 1960s, only a small number of political machines remained in the United States, largely in cities such as Chicago that had been able to escape full-scale civil service reform. Democratic Party reformers undermined these remaining machines between 1968 and 1972, though a handful still exist. The Republican Party of Nassau County, New York, for example, retains control of more than 20,000 patronage jobs in the county.